Wednesday 1 February 2012

Game Without Rules (Hodder & Stoughton, 1968) by Michael Gilbert: Book Review, plus Mr Calder and Mr Behrens (Hodder, 1982)

Well look at that: Existential Ennui is five years old today. Now, before we get all carried away n'shit (shyeah, right), I should point out that 1 February is really only technically Existential Ennui's birthday. When I originally set this blog up in 2007, it was as a back-up to another, long-defunct blog; I didn't really begin posting properly on Existential Ennui until July 2009, and Existential Ennui didn't really become what it is today – i.e. a pompous, pretentious, prolix books blog – until the following year. So I'll forgo any celebrations, if you don't mind – not that anyone would be celebrating the anniversary of this utter waste of everybody's time anyway – and carry on regardless, with a spot more spy fiction.

And if you've been following my series of posts on spy fiction series, you might have noticed that the tendency has been to post an introductory essay to whichever spy series I'm blogging about at that juncture and follow that with one or more subsequent posts on various novels in that series. But not this time. This time, just for a change, I'm keeping it all in one single, solitary post – partly because, including Monday's post on Desmond Cory's Secret Ministry, by the end of the week I'll have posted three pretty lengthy reviews*, and I'm afraid I can only devote so much time and effort to this blog (and yes, astonishing as it may seem, a certain amount of time and effort does go into Existential Ennui); but also because this particular spy series doesn't consist of novels, but rather of short stories...

First published in hardback in the UK by Hodder & Stoughton in 1968 – the year following the 1967 US Harper and Row first edition – under an attractive dustjacket designed by the appealingly monikered Mick and Ging, Game Without Rules is a collection of short stories by crime and suspense writer (and lawyer) Michael Gilbert, starring two late-middle-aged British Intelligence operatives named Mr. Calder and Mr. Behrens. The Hodder edition seen here is quite hard to come by these days – there are only a few on AbeBooks at the moment, and a presentable example will set you back at least £50–£100 – but in truth the book isn't common in any edition; it fell out of print years ago and at time of writing AbeBooks has just twenty copies in total.

Most of the stories in this collection originally appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine in the early- to mid-1960s – which is probably why, despite Gilbert being British, the American edition of the collection preceded the British one – and they are, quite simply, some of the best espionage tales I've ever read. Resting somewhere on the spy slide rule between John le Carré's Smiley stories and Anthony Price's David Audley novels – I wouldn't be at all surprised if Mr. Gilbert were an influence on Mr. Price in particular – the Calder and Behrens tales share with le Carré's work a healthy distrust of the establishment and with Price's an unshakable belief in the seriousness of the Soviet threat. But in common with both of those authors' novels they're also fine mysteries, with plausible scenarios, deft characterisation, believable dialogue, lashings of wry observation and wonderful pay-offs.

Both in their fifties, Samuel Behrens and Daniel Joseph Calder work for Mr. Fortescue, ostensibly the manager of the Westminster branch of the London and Home Counties Bank – where he is based – but in fact "the controller and paymaster of a bunch of middle-aged cutthroats known as the 'E' (or External) Branch of the Joint Services Standing Intelligence Committee" ("The Spoilers"). Behrens and Calder live not far from each other in the Kentish North Downs, in a fictional village named Lamperdown; Behrens lives with his aunt in the The Old Rectory, and Calder lives with his loyal Persian deerhound, Rasselas, in a cottage on Hyde Hill overlooking the village. The two men do not reside close by each other by chance; we learn that they do so in order to watch over one another, their line of work frequently being a dangerous one.

Gilbert's Calder and Behrens stories are clipped and economical – of necessity, being short – but still manage to pack a hell of a lot in; at one point in "The Spoilers" nothing less than the survival of democracy in Britain seems to be at stake, while the European chase in "Cross-Over" could fuel an entire Bond novel. Indeed, reading one of these short tales is akin to reading a full novel, so complete is the experience.

As characters, Calder and Behrens (and Fortescue) can be ruthless, but they're also pragmatic; while in "The Road to Damascus" an enemy agent is summarily executed by Mr. Calder upon a signal from Mr. Behrens, in "On Slay Down" a target is ultimately made an offer rather than, well, offed. But Calder and Behrens are certainly devious – as are the plots in which they find themselves, full of twists and hidden agendas; "Prometheus Unbound", for example, which sees Mr. Calder losing his marbles and boasts a tense pursuit and stand-off in London's Latin Quarter, genuinely keeps you guessing right up till the very end. And in Mr. Calder's dog, Rasselas, the two men possess a secret weapon who helps resolve more than a few plot points – although Rasselas also provides perhaps the most affecting moment in the entire book.

Game Without Rules isn't the only collection of Calder and Behrens stories; a second collection, Mr Calder & Mr Behrens, followed the first one in 1982, again published by Hodder & Stoughton in the UK. As with Game Without Rules, though, Mr Calder & Mr Behrens has slipped out of print, and there are currently fewer than twenty copies of any edition on AbeBooks (although they are more affordable than copies of the former). And of those (fewer than) twenty, only one is the Hodder first: an ex-library copy, possibly missing its jacket. My Hodder first came from the always-dependable Richard Sylvanus Williams of Winterton in North Lincs, but I've yet to read it. My learned friend Olman has, however, and you can find his review here, along with one or two other Michael Gilbert reviews (Olman's something of a Gilbert aficionado). There's also a good overview of all of Gilbert's work here, and a fine Guardian obituary by the late critic and crime novelist H. R. F. Keating here.

I'll be returning to Messrs Calder, Behrens and indeed Gilbert before too long – I have a couple of other Michael Gilbert books besides Mr Calder & Mr Behrens to blog about, one of which is a collection of short stories featuring a policeman who makes a brief guest appearance in Game Without Rules. Next, though: a spy series which began life as a crime series...

*UPDATE 2/2/12: At least, that was the plan. It now looks unlikely that I'll have time to finish that third review before the week's out, so it'll have to wait a while. Hey: that's blogging!

Monday 30 January 2012

Secret Ministry (a.k.a The Nazi Assassins; Johnny Fedora #1) by Desmond Cory (1951 Frederick Muller First Edition): Book Review and a Lewes / South Downs Connection

For this final post (for now) on Desmond Cory's Johnny Fedora spy thrillers (see here, here, here, here and here for previous posts) we're heading right back to the beginning of the Fedora series, to the book that introduced both Cory and Fedora to the world of spy fiction:

Secret Ministry was first published in hardback in the UK by Frederick Muller in 1951, under a dustjacket designed by the great illustrator, graphic artist and children's author Val Biro. Now, all throughout these Desmond Cory posts I've been banging on about how scarce some of the Johnny Fedora novels are. In one sense, Secret Ministry isn't scarce at all – you can download it as an ebook and read it right now. But in another, more tangible sense, it's nigh on impossible to get hold of. At time of writing there's only one copy of any edition of the book under its original title available online – a Shakespeare Head Conpress Printing (whatever the hell that is) on AbeBooks – although there are also a couple of US Award paperback printings of the novel on AbeBooks under its later title of The Nazi Assassins. Of the Frederick Muller first edition, however, there is not a single, solitary trace.

So where did my copy of the Muller first come from? Not from AbeBooks, or Amazon, or eBay, or even an actual, physical, bricks-and-mortar bookshop. No, my copy came from South Africa, via an African eBay-like site called bidorbuy. See, having drawn a blank through the usual channels in my search for a first edition, I resorted to desperately Googling the book's title, and eventually came up with a listing for what looked like it could be the Muller first – the listing included an image of the cover and a date of 1951, but no further publishing info – on bidorbuy (of which I'd never heard before). Unfortunately, the listing had closed. Undeterred, I searched bidorbuy to see if the auction had been won or simply ended, and discovered the latter to be the case. Bidorbuy being an African website I had no idea whether foreign bidders could even participate on it, but I signed up anyway, and contacted the seller to see if they'd consider shipping overseas. Happily they said they would, and after some further communication, between us we managed to arrange shipping to the UK.

And I'm glad we did, for a number of reasons. In the first instance, for a collector such as myself, obviously it's quite exciting to own a copy of such an old, rare and important book – not only the debut Johnny Fedora adventure, but one of two novels Cory had published at the outset of his career in 1951 (the other being the first Lindsay Grey murder mystery, Begin, Murderer!) – and in its original dustwrapper, too (which is a little battered, but still bright). Then there's being able to compare and contrast the story to later Fedora outings to see how Cory and his leading man developed, which is certainly instructive. But for me, the book also boasts an added, more personal significance, one I had no inkling of before I read it.

Secret Ministry, you see, is set in large part in the Sussex South Downs, specifically the area around Brighton and Lewes, the latter being the town in which, for the past four years, I've lived and worked. Lewes is mentioned a couple of times in the book, and Brighton looms large as well, but much of the story centres on the fictional village of Cootsbridge – and when you consider that Desmond Cory was born in Lancing in Sussex, it's not a huge leap to conjecture that he probably based the made-up Cootsbridge on the real village of Cooksbridge, which lies about two miles north of Lewes. (By the way, Secret Ministry isn't the only spy novel set in the South Downs; Anthony Price's The Alamut Ambush is also partly set not far from Lewes.)

Johnny Fedora is sent to Sussex by Peter Holliday of the British Ministry of Information – the eponymous "Secret Ministry" – to investigate drug smuggling by Nazi agents intent in destabilizing Britain any way they can (in the early Fedora novels, Johnny is invariably pitted against Nazis rather than Soviets). At heart of the drug ring is the "Three of Clubs", a gambling den perched atop the Downs overlooking Brighton, where Johnny meets an intriguing mix of managers, barmen, cloakroom attendants, singers and wives, any one of whom could be involved in the nefarious Nazi plot. Before long, Johnny's assigned partner, Murray, winds up dead in a supposed car accident – and Murray is just the first in what will soon become a string of corpses...

I had a brief chat with spy novelist (and friend of Existential Ennui) Jeremy Duns about Secret Ministry on Twitter the other day. Jeremy had just finished the book and noted that it was "light but very enjoyable" and "almost a comic novel, strikingly different tonally from Casino Royale" (Ian Fleming's debut James Bond novel, published two years after Secret Ministry in 1953). And it's true that Secret Ministry is a breezy read – punctuated by bursts of violence, sure, but verging on the madcap in places. But what's especially interesting about it is the way its lightness stands in stark contrast to later novels in the series. Where, say, Undertow (1962, the twelfth Fedora novel) is characterised by longish, some would say ponderous sequences where seemingly little happens – although, it should be noted, those moments of languor do add colour and psychological depth to the proceedings – Secret Ministry consists largely of hectic dashes and quickfire smart alec dialogue.

Moreover, Johnny himself is a very different kind of man than in later books. It's fair to say that Johnny becomes more thoughtful, more introspective as the series progresses (and certainly a lot less gabby: he's quite the chatterbox in Secret Ministry). Here, though, he's a whirlwind of frantic activity, forever darting about, dispensing quips, charming the ladies, charging into action. To some extent a number of those traits are evident in later books, too; Fedora is never the most subtle of operatives, and he retains his roving eye. But in Secret Ministry he displays a young man's nonchalance and lust for life – perhaps reflecting Cory's own youth and joy at embarking on a writing career – with none of the world-weariness which would infect him down the line (not cynicism, though; never cynicism for Johnny).

Many of the differences between younger Johnny and older Johnny can, of course, be attributed to both Fedora and Cory growing up. But it isn't just Cory's chief protagonist who becomes more rounded (and, it must be said, more interesting) as the series continues: Cory's writing style changes as well. Self-evidently, Cory became a much better writer as time went on, more willing to let the narrative drift if he felt a few pages of reflection might be necessary, more assured in his handling of character, in digging beneath the surface of his cast. By contrast, there's not much in the way of "down time" in Secret Ministry, and a lot of character – surface character, anyway – is conveyed through dialogue and inflection – copious dropped consonants, colloquialisms, idioms, abbreviations, all rolled out in an attempt at mimicking the way different people actually speak. Which is all very well when it's a straightforward chocks-away airforce pilot (Murray), but slightly more intrusive when it's a young man of Spanish-Irish extraction who's spent some time in America (Fedora). Thankfully it's a habit Cory quickly rids himself of, and by the time of Undertow he can confidently convey nationalities and accents without recourse to verbal tics and idiosyncrasies.

All that said, the relative unsophistication of Secret Ministry shouldn't detract from it being a thoroughly likable spy thriller: exciting, agile, action-packed, and wearing its influences lightly but proudly; at one point Johnny directly references "Cheyney and Chandler and Chase" (and also, curiously, Jane Austen). On top of that, we learn Johnny's real name (Sean O'Neill Fedora), and there are hints of the darkness to come, notably in the novel's opening scenes, where Johnny and two fellow agents separately dispatch three Nazis. The remainder of the story may be quite jolly, but right from the off Cory makes no bones about the fact that an encounter with Johnny Fedora will, likely as not, lead to an unpleasant death.

I'll have more from Desmond Cory and Johnny Fedora in the future, but next on Existential Ennui, rather than a series of spy novels, I'll be reviewing a series of spy short stories, featuring a pair of older operatives who both live, not in the Sussex South Downs, but in the Kentish North Downs... in the village of Lamperdown, to be precise...